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The Magic Flute

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 29, 2015

Ingmar Bergman’s affectingly dour autobiography, The Magic Lantern, gives a wonderful sense of the importance that this film, this phenomenon, held for him. There was much in his life and art of anguish, anger, doubt, despair. He was extremely prolific, both on stage and in film, and he worked at a remarkably high level of proficiency and expressiveness. There are certainly bright moments in all of that work, some of them nearly lasting for a whole film, or even two. Still, the darkness can all add up, rather, and even make you impatient with him. Still, part two, allowing for the fact that this extremely able and experienced man of the theatre was drawing on some pretty exalted predecessors, Bergman did become one of the great artists of his age, and one of the greatest at articulating our darkness and difficulty.

That’s how Bergman saw things. Further the autobiography, it strikes you that that’s how he lived things—contrived things, practically asked for things—too. But oh! Would that it had been otherwise! As suggested the celebrated films have their hints and glimpses: the vision of the Virgin in The Seventh Seal, the flashbacks in Wild Strawberries. (Or read the nearly all-sunny Sunday’s Children.) But they’re glancing, mostly. It’s a pretty dire array, all down the decades!

Except for The Magic Flute. This is really Bergman’s “Lord I believe; help thou my unbelief.” And as with the events in the New Testament that gave rise to that poignantly wrenching appeal, he seems to have received the boon he so deeply desired. Bergman finds in Mozart and Schikaneder’s celebrated opera all of the substance, order, productive tribulation and ultimate exaltation that he mostly despaired of in his own life. To communicate this blessing he treats his subject very simply, even guilelessly. Theatrically too—this Magic Flute also serves as a charming anthology of antiquated, late 18th century stage conventions and practices. It’s not merely nostalgic, nor at all simple-minded. But it’s so clear and ingratiating, so utterly uncynical! It’s a wonderful place, a wonderful way to introduce your charges, or yourself, if you’ve not had the pleasure, to the whys and ways of Opera. After that enormous overture comes that profoundly unthreatening dragon/monster. A lark, you might think. A trifle. And then come the trio harmonies, and all of that Masonic magnitude. Fun, followed by Everything. Really marvelous.